It is hard work behaving as a credible patient: encounters between women with chronic pain and their doctors

Soc Sci Med. 2003 Oct;57(8):1409-19. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(02)00520-8.


In various studies during the last decade, women with medically unexplained disorders have reported negative experiences during medical encounters. Accounts of being met with scepticism and lack of comprehension, feeling rejected, ignored, and being belittled, blamed for their condition and assigned psychological explanation models are common. Women patients exerted themselves to attract the doctor's medical attention and interest, and were anxious to be considered as whiners or complainers. Here, we explore the nature of "work" done by the patients in order to be believed, understood, and taken seriously when consulting the doctor. A qualitative study was conducted with in-depth interviews including a purposeful sampling of 10 women of varying ages and backgrounds with chronic muscular pain. The main outcome measures were descriptions reflecting the patients' activities or efforts invested in being perceived as a credible patient. We focused on the gendered dimensions of the experiences. The women patients' accounts indicated hard work to make the symptoms socially visible, real, and physical when consulting a doctor. Their efforts reflect a subtle balance not to appear too strong or too weak, too healthy or too sick, or too smart or too disarranged. Attempting to fit in with normative, biomedical expectations of correctness, they tested strategies such as appropriate assertiveness, surrendering, and appearance. The most important activities or efforts varied. However, the informants were not only struggling for their credibility. Their stories illustrated a struggle for the maintenance of self-esteem or dignity as patients and as women. The material was interpreted within a feminist frame of reference, emphasising the relationship between dignity and shame, power and disempowerment for women patients' with medically unexplained disorders.

MeSH terms

  • Assertiveness
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Chronic Disease / psychology
  • Female
  • Fibromyalgia / diagnosis
  • Fibromyalgia / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Norway
  • Pain / diagnosis
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Sex Factors
  • Women's Health